I had stuffed some extra underwear into my jacket pocket before driving to the hospital. That was the moment when I finally stopped lying to myself. We were supposed to be flying to Montreal later that day. In the NHL, you always wear a suit and tie when you travel. I made sure I wore a tracksuit and flip-flops because in my heart I knew I wasn’t making the trip. I knew I was going to be staying a while.
My teammates didn’t know there was anything wrong. My wife didn’t even know.
I remember sitting in the hospital parking lot and thinking, Okay. This is it. You walk into that building and your career might be over.
Let me back up a little bit. In December 2013, two days before Christmas, I suffered the kind of hockey injury that you dread. We were playing in Ottawa, and my linemate Sidney Crosby got hip-checked and went flying into my right leg. When you’re on skates, there’s nowhere for your knee to go. It’s trapped. I tore my ACL, MCL and PCL — basically dislocated my whole knee. Still, I wouldn’t let them put me on a stretcher. My father had a rule about that when I was a kid: unless both of your legs are broken, you never lay on the ice. You skate off on the good one. So that’s what I did.
A week later, I was at home in Pittsburgh, waiting to have surgery and going stir crazy. I can’t sit still for a second, so I went to the rink to get a little sweat in on the arm bike machine. Halfway through, I got this intense pain in my chest. Immediately, my mind went back to the hit, and I remembered that Sid’s skate had come up and hit me in the chest. I just thought maybe I’d broken a rib or torn some cartilage. No big deal. I’d played with both before. I finished the workout.
A few nights later, I was in bed when the coughing fits started. My wife was officially freaked out after a few nights of this. She kept telling me to get checked out, but I was like, “Babe, it’s just a cold.” I had no idea that something very bad was going on inside of me.
Finally, I broke down and had my chiropractor come over to the house, and told him I thought I’d busted up my ribs. He put me on the table like he has a hundred times before. “Duper, something’s wrong here,” he said after about an hour. “This isn’t related to anything structural.” He called my trainer immediately, who had the smarts to call my primary doctor. My doc called me right back.
“You have to go to the hospital for some tests right now,” he said.
I’m like, “O…K? I’ve played with broken ribs before, doc. What’s going on?”
“Have your wife drive you,” he said. “You can’t drive yourself. I’ll meet you at the ER.”
Those are never words you’re prepared to hear.
Now, this is all happening on January 2nd. I had family in from Quebec, staying at our house for the holidays. My four kids were all home on break. I’m standing in my kitchen with kids running all around the house. I’m not trying to freak everybody out by saying, “Hey gang, let’s all jump in the car and rush Daddy to the hospital!”
I hopped to the car and drove myself.
When I arrived in the ER … wow. There were a bunch of doctors waiting for me, with a whole room prepped and ready. As soon as I sat down, the needles were out and the I.V. was in my arm. That’s when I first heard “blood clot.” They took me for a CT scan. I got out of the big white tube and I’m sitting right by the machine waiting to hear my fate, just thinking … is this real?
They bring out the scans and point right to my lung.
“There it is.”
The doctor explained that I had a pulmonary embolism. One of the branches of my lung was clogged. The clot probably started in my calf when my leg was immobilized on the flight back from Ottawa. My lung wasn’t getting blood supply and was slowly dying. The words just kind of whizzed by me. I went to grab my clothes when the doc explained that I had to stay in the hospital for a few days.
He said, “Duper, listen, you basically had a stroke of your lung. It’s serious. If this would’ve went to your heart or your brain, it could’ve been fatal.”
I have my Serious Guy Face on but inside I’m thinking, Okay, whatever, when can I play hockey again? I had to go on blood thinners, which meant my knee surgery would be delayed. I know this sounds crazy, but I was disappointed. That’s how you’re conditioned to think as a hockey player. To make it in the league as an undrafted free agent like I did, you have to be able to go through walls. That’s not some motivational poster B.S. You truly have to be able to block out an immense amount of pain, and that can have consequences.
I was on blood thinners from January to July, while I was rehabbing my knee. I wasn’t on the ice for six months. I didn’t tell my teammates about the blood clot. I didn’t tell the press. Only my family knew. In July, my bloodwork came back fine. No clots in my legs. My lungs were clear. I went back to business.
On the first day of training camp, they handed me the red no-contact jersey. It killed me. I had trained like an absolute madman to get into the best shape of my life. My conditioning was ridiculous. All summer, people were wondering if this 34-year-old guy would be able to get his speed back. Can he still play on the first line after knee surgery? Can he keep up with Crosby? They didn’t even know what else I was dealing with. The trainers were incredible in how they took care of me and made sure I was good to go. But all I wanted to do was be out there for Game 1 on the top line with Sid and Kuny. It didn’t happen. I made it back for the opener, but they smartly kept my minutes in check for the first month of the season.
Game 11 was in Minnesota. After the game, I went to dinner with a couple of guys and had a few drinks. The next day, we woke up and flew to Winnipeg, and went straight to practice. I’m standing at center ice when I feel something go through my body like a bolt of lightning. It actually made me gasp. Instant chest pain. I thought, Am I having a heart attack right now?
The first time, the pain was gradual. Like a soreness. This time, I felt something physically going through my body. It caught me like a punch in the chest. Instantly, I do the math. Come on. Not again.
I’m hunched over and guys are looking me at me. I lied and said I must have pulled a muscle on a shot. Call me stupid but I didn’t say anything to anyone about it. Not my teammates. Not my trainers. Not my wife. The hockey player in me — he’s saying it’s nothing. He’s thinking, You just battled through eight months of rehab for your knee. Everyone was second-guessing you. You’re 35. This is it.
I finished practice.
I would not recommend this to anyone but the truth is that I played five more NHL games without ⅓ of a lung. My knee was genuinely sore, so I asked for some anti-inflammatories, which helped with the pain a little bit. My training was so overboard that the blood clot didn’t affect my conditioning. I played my best game of the year in Toronto, a few days after I felt the clot. We won 2-1, and I scored both goals. It was my first game back on the line with Sid and Kuny. That’s the line I love playing on. I’m like, “I’m back, baby!”
I was lying to myself. We were on the road. I was away from my family, around the guys doing what I love. It was easy to be in denial. Then the road trip ended and we returned to Pittsburgh. When I walked in the door and saw my wife and kids again, that was it.
I went to our team’s head trainer, Chris Stewart. “Hey Stewie, I think I maybe felt something,” I said. I might want to go get checked.” We were supposed to leave for Montreal.
He and the doctors told me that if I didn’t get checked out I wasn’t coming on the trip. Our training staff and doctors have been unbelievable. The fact that I played five games was not on them. I’m the one who kept it to myself. As soon as I gave them a little hint that something was wrong, Dr. Vyas and the team were right on top of it.
So I put on my track suit, grabbed some extra underwear and drove to the hospital. As crazy as this is, I was still kind of thinking, Well, maybe the clot is small and they won’t see it.
I went into the big white tube again. The doctors came to me with the results of the CT scan again. They point to the lung again.
“There it is.”
I completely broke down. I called my wife and said, “Babe, I think I’m done.”
My wife has been incredibly supportive, but she worries. When I told her the whole story about me feeling it five games before, she got really scared about me going back. She’s like, “What keeps you from not saying anything again?” It’s a hard thing to answer.
It’s easy to say that family comes first. I absolutely love my my children and my wife. But the mentality of a professional hockey player is that you never admit that you’re human. You never admit pain, especially if it’s pain that no one can see.
The Penguins have been incredible about keeping me around the team while I deal with this second blood clot. It can be a very dark place to be away from the game. With my personality, I need to be around the guys. The coaches have requested that I be in every team meeting, and I’ve helped out with scouting. I travel with the team on flights under two hours and offer any insight I can from the press box.
Up there, it’s a 2D game. Everything looks so easy. There’s so much room. Then you go down to ice level and it’s a 3D game. I’m quickly learning the limitations of my coaching ability:
“Hey, why didn’t you see that passing lane?”
“Well, Duper, there was a guy right in my face jamming a stick into my ribs.”
Some of the guys have started to call me Coach Duper. I laugh it off, but it’s killing me to wear my little suit while they’re putting on their gear.
I’m 35. I know I don’t have much time left. But I’m getting out of that press box prison. I don’t care if it takes six months or a year or two years. I will get healthy. I will play in the National Hockey League again.